The barleywine style (also written “barley wine”) style originates from England and was the biggest, boldest, and richest ale in a brewer’s portfolio. Traditionally only affordable to the English aristocracy, modern-day Barleywines can be enjoyed by the masses thanks to the craft beer golden age in which we now find ourselves. While not necessarily the biggest beer breweries make these days—what with boundary-pushing brews by the likes of Avery, Dogfish Head, and Sam Adams, among others—barleywines are still full of decadent complexity. The “wine” component of barleywine references not the use of grapes, but the strong alcohol percentage akin to wine.
These days, barleywines, as with many resurrected styles of beer, fall into either American-style or English-style categories. American-style barleywines tend to be stronger in alcohol and higher in bitterness, thanks to Americans’ insatiable lust for hops. While both versions contain the high alcohol percentage necessary for extended aging, these barleywines, like a good strong IPA, are often better drunk fresh, as the American hops (Chinook, Centennial, to name a few) quickly fade into less desirable flavors as they age, and the amount of bitterness one perceives increases relative to the malt character. English-style barleywines, on the other hand, age with grace, and almost always improve with age. The main difference is the hops: English hops contain a specific amount of bittering acids that resist the sharp oxidative decline found with American hops. One style is not better than the other; rather, it is entirely a matter of preference. There are certainly many examples of American-style barleywines aging well.
In addition to the high alcohol and hops used in barleywines, the potential for aging can be improved by extending the boil time during brewing, with some brewers boiling their wort for upwards of four hours, whereas 60-90 minutes is common for most beers. Boiling wort undergoes the same process as baking bread, known as Maillard reactions, and the longer the wort is boiled, the darker and more complex in flavor it becomes. This extended boiling time stabilizes the wort, thus helping to resist the negative aspects of aging.
Now that you know a little background on the style and how it is made, let’s talk about the Géol specifically.
While I’ve loved and brewed barleywines for years (my third batch of homebrew was a barleywine), the Géol English-style barleywine was conceptualized back in 2014 after I read the fantastic book Vintage Beer: A Taster’s Guide to Brews That Improve Over Time by Patrick Dawson. His discussion of vintage English-style barleywines, such as the famed Thomas Hardy Ale, inspired me to create a barleywine with ageability as its main focus. The Géol utilizes a relatively simple malt bill consisting mostly of Maris Otter base malt and three varieties of crystal malts for accent. This simplicity belies the complexity achieved through a three-hour boil time and the resulting Maillard reactions previously mentioned. English hops, with their higher ratio of beta-to-alpha acids, are added during the boil, with careful mind not to overwhelm the malt character. A perfect balance is what we’re after with this ale.
After the wort is cooled and sent into the fermenter, we pitch a blend of English and American yeasts. The English yeast is particularly complex, with plenty of fruity esters with notes of pear and apricot, and pushed to its limit by the high gravity of the beer, also produces phenols reminiscent of leather and tobacco. The American yeast helps to dry out the beer so it’s not so sweet as to be cloying. The result of this time and attention to detail results in a barleywine that can easily be aged five years or more. Some English-style barleywines are said to age comfortably upwards of 20 years!
Each year, we hold back a few cases to age ourselves, and we release these vintages at our bars and restaurants for special occasions—so be sure to keep on the lookout! Additionally, we also have plans to release barrel-aged versions in the years to come, and perhaps even a “funkified” Brett variant. Oh, the possibilities!